Christine Stuart photo
Melvin Hewston of the VFW and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Christine Stuart photo)

Now that Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn is no longer a U.S. Senator, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal is hoping to find bipartisan support to pass a bill that would reduce the rate of military and veteran suicides.

Coburn was the lone Senator to place a hold on the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act because he believed it duplicated existing Department of Veterans Affairs programs.

Blumenthal disagreed.

“We need to hold the VA accountable. There needs to be stronger oversight,” Blumenthal said Tuesday at a press conference in Hartford. “As for its present activities, they are simply inadequate.”

Blumenthal said a recent report from the U.S. General Accountability Office showed “how inconsistent and inadequate the VA’s current activities are.”

He continued: “Anyone who knows someone who has tried to access mental health care in the VA system knows how inconsistent and inadequate it is in meeting its own standards.”

Melvin Hewston from Veterans of Foreign Wars said it’s been a priority of his organization to get more of these service members into mental health programs. He said the military has done a good job of putting the responsibility of seeking these types of mental health services on the service members themselves.

“We need to make sure the VA gets more psychologists and psychiatrists,” Hewston said.

The bill provides for an independent and outside review of the VA’s suicide prevention services, enhances both online sources and community outreach to veterans, and brings more psychiatrists to VA clinics and hospitals with tuition breaks.

“Thirty percent of all servicemen and women come back with those demons,” Blumenthal said. “Having fought successfully abroad they come back and lose the war against those inner demons that cause them to commit suicide.”

He said the bill was his first priority and he hopes it will be the first priority of his colleagues on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He said the Veterans Administration is failing to address these problems as “energetically and effectively as it should.”

Blumenthal said the fiscal note for the legislation would be relatively minimal. He estimated it may cost about $100 million at most, which — when compared to the total Defense Department budget — is a “rounding error.”

Regardless of cost, Blumenthal said the nation has the responsibility to provide this kind of medical care to its veterans.

The legislation is named after Clay Hunt, a Marine veteran who received a Purple Heart for his heroic service in Anbar Province, where he was shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his head. Hunt suffered from post-traumatic stress upon his return and committed suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28.

But every state has veterans whose lives have ended in suicide.

In Connecticut, many of the speakers Tuesday recalled their friendship with U.S. Marine Justin Eldridge, of Waterford.

“The VA failed to provide Justin Eldridge with the help he needed and when he took his own life he left his children, his wife, a family that was devastated,” Blumenthal said. “My office tried to help him, many of his friends tried to help him, members of the Marine Corps League in Southeastern Connecticut, which he helped to found. I was a member of it, and unfortunately we lost him.”

Every day 22 veterans commit suicide, but none of them “are destined inevitably to be victims of these inner demons. We can save them,” Blumenthal said. “Because the greatest nation in the history of the world should not have 22 of its bravest, finest men and women taking their own lives on any day in this country.”

If the legislation is reintroduced it will have to pass the House again and the Senate. It did pass the House in 2014, but never made it to the Senate floor because of Coburn’s hold on the bill.